Temple Grandin

 

This week I finally got to watch Temple Grandin, the HBO biopic starring Claire Danes. It was, if I may resort to using an unimaginative pun, simply grand-in. I highly recommend it to anyone who classifies him- or herself as a human. The story is touching, amazing, and presented in a very sensitive way. Indeed, I wasn’t in awe of Temple Grandin because the music swelled, or everyone made impassioned speeches—I was in awe because the movie attempted to speak her language, and to translate her struggles to me in a way that was just real and understandable.

There are so many aspects of Temple’s life that would make an fine movie regardless of the execution, but what I really appreciated about this film is that it strove to be worthy of her story. It strove to put the information in a proper context; that is, not to put Temple on the viewers’ level, but rather to introduce us to her unique way of thinking. By the time the movie was over, I felt as though I had a better understanding, if not of autism in general, at least of the way Temple’s mind worked. The mantra of “different, not less” which is invoked throughout the film by Temple and her family members, perfectly summarizes one of the prevailing themes: that though people may think or act differently than others, it does not mean they are not adhering to their own logic. Temple Grandin became successful in part due to a wonderful family support system, but she also excelled because of her brilliant—albeit different—mind. The film offers a fine lesson in trying to understand before judging, and in looking at difference not as something that needs to be suppressed or cured, but as something that can yield great opportunities.

The film begins with Temple, a recent high school graduate, going to stay on her aunt’s farm for the summer. She is initially wary, unsure of how she will know her assigned room is “hers,” and unreceptive to questions of whether she’s excited to start college in the fall. We the viewers immediately know that Temple is “different”—she has troubling reading people, and only eats yogurt or jello—but, by all appearances, the chatty, alert young woman is fairly well-adjusted. It is a shock to see in a flashback that she didn’t speak until age four, and that her mother, upon taking her to a doctor, was told that Temple would never learn to talk, and would need to be institutionalized her entire life. There are many such contrasting scenes in the movie, in which we learn about all the people who believed in Temple, and supported her enough, to allow her to blossom into a success. Certainly Temple’s mother and aunt were beyond dedicated, and it is touching, and humbling, to see them fight tirelessly for both the big and small victories in her life. It is obvious, both to us the viewers and to Temple herself, that without these influential people, Temple never would have been able to overcome the many obstacles that existed both due to her autism and to public misconceptions.

After this formative summer, in which we witness her burgeoning interest in cattle, Temple begins attending college at Franklin Pierce University. There she constructs a makeshift “hug box” based on a machine on the farm that was used to make cattle feel secure and unthreatened. This immediately outs Temple as a “weirdo,” someone who cannot interact normally with her roommate, and who instead derives some sort of pleasure (which the school seems confident is sexual) from a bizarre box contraption. The box is confiscated, and Temple almost leaves school, but luckily her family helps to resolve the situation. This marks a turning point in Temple’s life, for she recognizes that in order to keep her hug box (which she must have, in order to be relaxed enough to attend the classes she hates, like French), she must devise and write up an experiment that proves its calming qualities. The resulting research is so impressive that she not only succeeds in her goal, but gains the attention of the school as well.

In truth, the movie could easily end here, for it shows a major triumph for Temple, and, indeed, a monumental triumph for anyone with autism at that time. Still, Temple’s story is extraordinary, and this is just the beginning of her incredible career. Temple goes on to earn her Master’s, and later her Ph.D, in Animal Science. Throughout this, she deal with near-constant discrimination and skepticism—not only due to her autism, but also due to the sexist opinions of the time, which were particularly strong in her chosen field. The movie at times makes her situation look impossibly bleak, such as when her curved corral (deemed “genius” by a reporter) is dismantled immediately after its triumphant construction. Still in spite of this, Temple handles her situation with humor, aplomb, and endless resourcefulness. A film that could get bogged down by the negativity of so many supporting characters is redeemed by this protagonist’s shining goodness: Temple truly believes in her mission statement, that “Nature is cruel, but we don’t have to be.” Indeed, all the cruelty in the movie only serves to reinforce this idea. As humans, we have the power to be gentle, supportive, and empathetic, so why don’t we employ those skills? Isn’t it better to choose kindness over cruelty?

After watching Temple Grandin, it’s impossible to reach the conclusion that there is only one right way, and that “difference” is more trouble than it’s worth. The film teaches us to celebrate unique perspectives as the preservation of, rather than a threat to, our humanity. This movie inspires, and leaves the viewer with a greater sense of wonder and possibility.

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